Friday, September 28, 2007

God, omniscience, The Knight's Tale, Nebraska, my brother

In my undergraduate Chaucer class we've just finished our read of The Knight's Tale. We wondered if its genre (romance) actually offers a structure adequate to answering the philosophical questions Chaucer introduces into the story from Boethius. We wondered about Palamon's complaint against the cruelty of the gods, Arcite's deathbed ruminations on "What is this world?" and Emily's desire to drop out of the story completely. We wondered, in short, about fate, chance, providence, fortune, predestination, omniscience and divinity.

My brother has been wondering the same thing. Only he is a lawyer/journalist/MBA and much more clever than I am. And he is addicted to puns.

update: frater meus gets medieval: on magna carta and h. ross perot

Thursday, September 27, 2007

For no particular reason

I would simply like to announce how happy I am to have three such erudite and humane co-bloggers. It has been an honor to be In the Middle with you.

I'd also like to express my gratitude to our lively cadre of readers and commentators. You've helped us to create a serious, playful and affirmative community. Thanks!

(image of "Stuck in the Middle" from here; thanks, srj, for putting that song in my head!)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Ephemera: Song Lyrics

UPDATE Spelling corrected. And apparently Eileen and I were writing our posts at the same time. Don't get so caught up in my silly post that you miss her post below!
"Cortaysé," quoth I, "I leve,
And charyté grete be yow among.
Bot my speche that yow ne greve,
. . . . .
Thyself in heven over hygh thou heve
To make thee quen that was so yonge.
What more honour moghte he acheve
That hade endured in worlde stronge
And lyved in penaunce hys lyves longe
Wyth bodyly bale hym blysse to byye?
What more worschyp moght he fonge
Then corounde be kyng by cortaysé? (469-480)

In the midst of lecturing on Pearl today, I glossed the above stanza with The Smiths, "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet Baby":
You just haven't earned it yet, baby
You just haven't earned it, son
You just haven't earned it yet, baby
You must suffer and cry for a longer time
It just popped out, and then, of course, I realized that most of my students had probably been born after The Smiths broke up. To their credit, or my chagrin, some laughed.

A silly question: what song lyrics have found their way, on purpose or no, into your conversations with students?

A Terrible Beauty is Not Reborn: Is Catharsis, or Tragedy, Still Possible?

Random Notes Toward an Understanding of Violence and Catharsis

Part I. A Time to Kill [Bill]

My current issue of Entertainment Weekly [28 Sep. 2007] announces that "Violence is in the air as Hollywood comes out blazing with a season of brutal and bloody movies." To whit:
In Sweeny Todd, a murderous barber's victims are baked into pies. Go see Rendition, and you'll be treated to the story of an Egyptian-born chemical engineer who gets intercepted in a D.C. airport, taken to a secret detention facility, and tortured. And then there's Agent 47, the genetically enhanced assasin-for-hire and star of Hitman, who's always down for blowing out some brains. . . . "These are dark, disturbing times," says director Neil Jordan, whose vigilante drama The Brave One debuted at $13.5 million last weekend. "Movies have to reflect the times we live in. [The Brave One] is about violence, pure and simple. It struck me as the appropriate theme at the moment."
And what is "the moment," exactly? Apparently, according to the gurus at EW, these movies [which also include the recently released Eastern Promises, which includes a delightful "naked fight" scene with a buff and bruised Viggio Mortensen--yay! say some, but not me--3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Resident Evil: Extinction, The Kingdom, and No Country for Old Men, among others] are some kind of artistic reaction to our collective frustration with the war in Iraq. According to Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, "It has to be tied to Iraq. These are furious times. People feel impotent. People are resigned to the system not working, and that manifests itself in these violent fantasies." Another screenwriter, John Logan, explains, "Audiences have always been drawn to the catharsis of violence."

I want to set aside for a moment the fact that the current season of new releases is somehow more drenched in blood than previous seasons or has reached some kind of critical mass of killing and drilling [um, let's see: Sin City, every other Resident Evil film, The Hostel, The Saw trilogy, FOX's 24, HBO's Rome and The Sopranos and Deadwood, F/X's The Shield and Nip/Tuck, insert your Quentin Tarantino or John Woo or David Cronenberg or Robert Rodriguez or Brian de Palma film here, Fight Club, Gladiator, 300, The History of Violence, Grindhouse, Casino Royale, Pan's Labyrinth, the Mission Impossible trilogy, the Bourne trilogy, etc. etc.], and turn to the question of what kind or type of violence might be important here, and how that contributes [or doesn't] to catharsis, and whether we even know what we mean anymore when we talk about catharsis [or even, tragedy]. I mean, seriously, is The Brave One or Rendition really going to help me achieve catharsis for our collective sins in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay? Wouldn't that be like saying these films would help me accomplish a kind of metaphorical revenge, and against who or what, exactly? I'm already drenched in fear and anxiety and despair over what's happening in the cells at Guantanamo Bay: how does Jodie Foster holstering up as a vigilante killer on the streets of New York City help me?

Since I am currently teaching, in my British Literature survey course a trilogy of Shakespeare plays--Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, and King Lear--that I specifically chose to teach as a trilogy because of their emphasis on both the spectacle and trauma of violence [especially in relation to issues of the polis and politics], I think it is worth considering with my students what Aristotle might have thought about catharsis in relation to what Entertainment Weekly, and by extension, we, think about it now. I want to start with the provocative statement that catharsis, through the staged spectacle of "beautiful" and "tragic" violence, may no longer be possible [partly because we don't "get" beauty in the same terms that Aristotle did when he was talking about tragedy, and furthermore, we don't "get" tragedy, either, or rather, we prefer violence shorn of any tragic dimension that might "touch" us]. Tarantino's Kill Bill double-feature is, by any account, a gorgeous and extremely violent and lushly designed and shot film which made me feel when I watched it . . . . absolutely nothing. It washed over me like a stunning shower of cherry blossoms tinged with blood and hacked, flying limbs whirling all around me in a gorgeous steely tableau of crisp snow-flecked . . . nothingness.

What does it mean to say a film's violence is beautiful, yet unmoving, and why might that matter? In the current climate, where we can watch, one right after the other, a streaming online video of a real beheading, devoid of a narrative frame, in Iraq or Pakistan, a film like The Hostel where people pay money to watch abducted women being tortured in private rooms, and the fictitious Jack Bauer [played by Kiefer Sutherland] on 24 power-drill a terrorist suspect in the groin, is it still possible to be moved, through fear and pity, by the beautiful spectacle of violence, and to what end? The key for me, is to refocus on the function of beauty [often overlooked when many of us are teaching tragedy, I think, in favor of concentrating on the related functions of fear and pity], especially as Aristotle relates that term, not just to catharis, but to wonder [rhaumaston].

Part II. Those are pearls that were his eyes; / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea change / Into something rich and strange

One of the most beautiful scenes in film, that is also violent and tragic, is Julie Taymor's staging of the final banquet scene in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus [a "revenge tragedy," which puts it in the same class as Tarantino's Kill Bill; at least, that's what I tell my students]. The original play cannot be called great art--it is an early effort on Shakespeare's part and may have even had a co-author. On the page, it isn't very powerful and is also overly contrived, but in Taymor's hands, and largely due to the superb acting of Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Harry Lennix, and Alan Cummings in the chief roles, it is elevated [I believe] to high [and moving] art. From the serving to the empress Tamora of her two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, who have had their throats cut by Titus and baked into two meat pies, to Titus breaking the neck of his own daughter, the ravished and mutilated Lavinia, in front of his dinner guests, saying, "die, Lavinia, die, and thy shame with thee," and then, after telling Tamora what she has just eaten, stabbing her in the neck with her own cutlery, after which the emperor Saturnine leaps across the long table and plunges the sharp ends of a candelabra into Titus's chest, after which Titus's son Lucius slides Saturnine backwards along the table to his chair and then plunges a long spoon down his throat, spits on him, and shoots him in the head, we witness a gorgeous and highly stylized sequence of the eruption of violence and despair. Taymor chooses to freeze the frame--a la the style of the Wachowski brothers in The Matrix--just at the moment Lucius' spittle is flying, in slow motion, toward Saturnine's face, after which semi-still moment, the camera pulls sharply back to reveal Titus's villa dining room transported to the center of the ruins of the Roman coliseum, in the seats of which sit modern spectators [in other words, you and me]. My students love this scene, and some even cheer at the moments when Tamora is stabbed and Saturnine is spit upon, but they are also in completely quiet and dumbfounded shock when Titus breaks the neck of his daughter, Lavinia, while embracing and kissing her.

No matter how many times I myself have watched this scene, I never cease to marvel at it, and also be moved. [And, as Taymor, stages Lavinia's murder, everyone at the dinner table is also struck with wonder.] Indeed, I would argue, that my students and I are struck with wonder at this scene, a wonder which, in the words of Joe Sachs [who teaches Aristotle's Poetics at St. John's College in Annapolis, and who is also a translator of Aristotle's works], places us "in the power of another for awhile" and "the sight of an illusion works real and durable changes in us" as "we merge into something rich and strange." Quite obviously, by pulling back to show the corpses littered around the dinner table in the middle of the coliseum in which the spectators of the aftermath are, in essence, the contemporary moviegoers, Taymor asks us to ask ourselves, "why are we watching this, astonished and rapt in silence?"

It is difficult, I must say, for either I or my students to "connect," through pity, with the characters in Shakespeare's play. They are just too remote from our world and speak in a manner that is overly formal and archaic [never mind the occasional flights of beautiful poetry, which to our students' ears is often just "greek"]. I typically have a hard time getting my students to, say, empathize with an Oedipus or a Macbeth, such that they could palpably feel their fear and worry about their predicaments and lament their violent ends [and then somehow feel "purged" by the image of Oedipus weeping through bloody eyes as he embraces his daughters or by Macbeth's decapitated head landing on the ground]. And yet, again, the murder of Lavinia, and also the scene in which Taymor stages Lavinia after she has been raped and had her hands and tongue cut off by Chiron and Demetrius, who have also placed twigs into the stumps of her arms [the image of Lavinia, standing on a tree stump, branches crossed over her breasts and bending forward into the camera with blood flowing out of her speechless mouth is stunning], always arrests them. Somehow, more than the scenes they have watched over and over again in films like Saw and Grindhouse and Kill Bill [movies they love, and can even laugh at], these scenes both frighten them and make them sit still with astonishment. Somehow, and I can't put my finger on it exactly, both pity and fear suddenly rush in at these moments. They have to arrive together, because fear without pity is a cheap thrill, and pity without the recognition of the possibility of shared pain, is simply an empty sentiment. The idea that the violation done to another person is somehow also a violation to ourselves is the beginning of the true understanding of pity [or perhaps we should say, empathy, or compassion]. Something magic is at work in the film that it could have the capacity to grab my students' attention in this way [it happens every semester, believe me], and that magic is Taymor's art--more precisely, it is her ability to render violence in a way that is so beautiful, while also being so rawly intimate [let's give the actors credit here], that we cannot look away nor pretend it isn't us. And this is fiction, right?

To try to explain what I think is happening here, I turn [again] to Joe Sachs, who has generously shared his thoughts on tragedy and catharsis, via Aristotle's Poetics, on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In his notes there [not all of which I agree with], he writes,
The character Alonso, in the power of the magician Prospero, spends the length of the play in the illusion that his son has drowned. To have him alive again, Alonso says, "I wish Myself were muddled in that oozy bed / Where my son lies" (V.i.150-52). But he has already been there for three hours in his imagination; he says earlier "my son i' th' ooze is bedded; and I'll seek him deeper than e'er plummet sounded / And with him there lie mudded" (III.iii.100-2). What is this muddy ooze? It is Alonso's grief, and his regret for exposing his son to danger, and his self-reproach for his own past crime against Prospero and Prospero's baby daughter, which made his son a just target for divine retribution; the ooze is Alonso's repentance, which feels futile to him since it only comes after he has lost the thing he cares about the most. But the spirit Ariel sings a song to Alonso's son: "Full fathom five thy father lies; / Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes; / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea change / Into something rich and strange" (I.ii.397-402). Alonso's grief is aroused by an illusion, an imitation of an action, but his repentance is real, and is slowly trasnforming him into a different man. Who is this new man? Let us take counsel from the "honest old councilor" Gonzalo, who always has the clearest sight in the play. He tells us that on this voyage, when so much seemed lost, every traveller found himself "When no man was his own" (V.i.206-13).
The way in which the beautiful spectacle of violence, artfully staged and performed, could bring us to this revelation, voiced by Shakespeare's Gonzalo, seems crucial to me if we want to understand how, in the contemporary movie theater, catharsis could ever be possible. But what sorts of violent and so-called tragic films do this today? According to the political theorist Jane Bennett, the enactment of ethical aspirations “requires bodily movements in space, mobilizations of heat and energy,” and “a distinctive assemblage of affective propulsions,” and further, ethical rules, by themselves, are not sufficient to the task of nurturing “the spirit of generosity that must suffuse ethical codes if they are to be responsive to the surprises that regularly punctuate life.” It is the argument of Bennett’s book, The Enchantment of Modern Life, that the contemporary world, contrary to certain narratives of a disenchanted world, does “retain the power to enchant humans and that humans can cultivate themselves so as to experience more of that effect.” Further, her “wager” is that, “to some small but irreducible extent, one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others.” As regards either medieval or contemporary art [which includes film], what sites of enchantment are available to us, and to our students, that would help them, through various beautiful [and sometimes terrible] spectacles, to be moved, through wonder, out of and back to themselves in a way that would help them to see, they were never just themselves, after all? And neither were we.

Monday, September 24, 2007

QOTD: Chrulew on Derrida in Eden

Speaking of Science Fiction writers, last week, Matthew Chrulew (who, so far as I can determine, is a doctoral student at Monash University) did me the honor of letting me read his excellent article "Feline Divinanimality: Derrida and the Discourse of Species in Genesis," published in what looks to be a fascinating journal, The Bible and Critical Theory. I very much enjoyed it, and what's more, I experienced a not wholly unwelcome feeling of uncanniness: Chrulew's conclusion and my dissertation's epilogue have much in common:
Interestingly, Derrida does not name his cat, but, in denying with his appeals to its reality all of the appropriations that necessarily accompany its appearance in his essay, he seeks to retain only the untranslatable pro-noun that marks its individuality: ‘It is a matter … of rendering oneself to the truth of the name, to the thing itself such as it must be named by the name, that is, beyond the name. The thing, save the name’ (Derrida 1995b: 68; see also 58, 89; see also Derrida 1995a: 67). What ultimately guides these (un)namings is the ‘paradisaic bestiary’ (Derrida 2002: 405/287) that haunts Derrida’s philosophy, the vision of an unfallen language more paradisaic even than both the Priestly and Yahwistic creation accounts, which naturalised from the first the cultural distinction between wild animals and livestock (Gen 1:24-25, 2:20). In seeking, chimerically and impossibly, naked words in Eden, he evokes a spectral naming to haunt our relationships with animals: a truly Adamic naming in which man would not differentiate himself (through his shame) from ‘the Animal’ as such, but rather be (unashamedly) in relation to all of the animot in their multiplicity, according to their differences: as species, perhaps, but also as unsubstitutable singularities with their own point(s) of view, every singular existent called by his/her/its proper name. Through this prophetic and profoundly anti-anthropocentric vision, we might approach an unconditional hospitality open to the absolute exemplarity of the unsubstitutable other, in which tout autre est tout autre. Such a naming-to-come would erase the name in search of ‘the proper name in its pure possibility (it’s to you, yourself, that I say “come,” “enter,” “whoever you are and whatever your name, your language, your sex, your species may be, be you human, animal, or divine…”)’ (Derrida and Dufourmantelle 2000: 137–139). It would be in this sense, mythic and nude, that we should inhabit Eden, where ‘whatever the man call[s] each living creature, that [is] its name’ (Gen 2:19).

What's next for all this? At my defense, Samuel Moyn suggested: "nominalism." Strikes me as a good idea.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others

I am having lunch with frequent ITM commentator (and former GW undergrad) Liza tomorrow -- she whom I always make nervous through my penetrating glare. So that she won't feel like she's wandered into Torquemada's Truth Extraction disguised as a cordial repast, I've been re-reading an absolutely wonderful book she gave me when she left DC for Cambridge, England, last year. Instead of grilling her on her current seminars and life as a NYC intellectual, I'll ask if she really does believe that tentacled and multi-eyed aliens might speak a language that unmoors them from the chain of time.

Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others is described on its jacket as science fiction, but that isn't really accurate: "cerebral speculative fiction" captures the trajectories of the these short stories better. With a humane touch, a love for words, and the ability to hybridize a jarring realism with disconcerting speculation, Chiang stages a series of thought-experiments that answer questions like: What if the Tower of Babel actually pierced the vault of heaven? What if in learning an alien's language, one were thereby so transformed by its syntax that it could alter the relationship between cause and effect, between being and time? What if nineteenth century pseudoscience was true? What is God, his angels, and hell carelessly manifested themselves from time to time, effecting fatalities and cures with a seemingly careless abandon?

Great fun to read.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Endangered Languages, Dying Wor(l)ds

I was browsing the New York Times online this evening and stumbled across an article I found interesting, which for once intersects in very specific ways with my own interests.

In "Languages Die but Not Their Last Words", journalist John Noble Wiliford talks about the endangered languages in the world today, noting that an endangered language falls out of use approximately every two weeks. An excerpt:
Some languages vanish in an instant, at the death of the sole surviving speaker. Others are lost gradually in bilingual cultures, as indigenous tongues are overwhelmed by the dominant language at school, in the marketplace and on television.

New research, reported yesterday, has found the five regions where languages are disappearing most rapidly: northern Australia, central South America, North America’s upper Pacific coastal zone, eastern Siberia, and Oklahoma and the southwestern United States. All have indigenous people speaking diverse languages, in falling numbers.
It's a bit disconcerting to see the language in which so much of the article is couched. I'm much more used to "endangered species" than "endangered languages." However, there's something about the urgency in the article that touched me:
In a teleconference with reporters yesterday, K. David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore, said that more than half the languages had no written form and were “vulnerable to loss and being forgotten.” Their loss leaves no dictionary, no text, no record of the accumulated knowledge and history of a vanished culture.
It seems like a part of what's at stake in the article isn't simply the languages that are threatened; rather, there's a very specific, human cost in their loss. I'm inclined to think that there's a degree to which this shares some focus with other recent posts and comment threads here. The idea of a "deep past" that precedes written history is transformed in this article about languages, leaving open the possibility that there is, increasingly, access to entire histories and peoples lost with the passing of the spoken languages that preserved them.

In a talk with friend (and sometime commenter on this blog) LJS this afternoon over coffee, the subject turned to translation. I've been studying, and attempting to produce, literary translations of Old English poetry over the past year -- a side-effect of participating in two translation workshops, as well as the presence of the new Center for Literary Translation here. I've come to explain my difficulties with literary translation as a problem with poetics: I can be a very good writer, but only of a specific genre (literary criticism). I will, in short, never be a poet.

LJS's response was interesting. He discounted genre as a factor -- rather, he explained my problems with translation as a function of loving language. More precisely, a function of loving Old English more than I'll ever be able to love modern English. I'd never really thought the problem through in those terms, but it makes some sense. I nearly always go for the too-close-to-the-original in my translations. I think it's because I'm worried what my inability to be truly faithful to the original language I'll lose something vital. Or worse yet -- something still living in the dead language.

The end of the article suggests that a large part of the loss of these languages is due to languages that, like modern English, have acheived global use:
Another measure of the threat to many relatively unknown languages, Dr. Harrison said, is that 83 languages with “global” influence are spoken and written by 80 percent of the world population. Most of the others face extinction at a rate, the researchers said, that exceeds that of birds, mammals, fish and plants.
I spend a lot of time with dead languages. In fact, I probably spend too much time with them, given that I prefer to think of them as languages not currently in use. Thinking about my difficulty with translation and Old English, I can't help but wonder if my ambivalence with translation of late is a part of the larger problem: I don't know if the necessity of translation helps or hurts these dying languages, particularly when there is no way to keep them from being pushed out of linguistic currency by the 83 global languages.

In some sense, I think I'm feeling the sadness of losing access to the worlds these languages point to -- the histories that will never be told, the stories that won't be passed down. The worlds that will be left behind, forgotten, because the voices that could speak them fell silent. Preserving the languages is important, and these linguists are performing a service to future study, but how much can they really preserve?

I can't help wondering -- with no hope of even a (silent) fossilized remnant to be interpreted (correctly or incorrectly) afterwards, what happens to stories that aren't passed down? And when these languages die what happens to the worlds and peoples they -- however partially and fragmentedly -- represent?

File that under questions I'm not sure how to even begin answering.

Cross posted at Old English in New York

Bib Request: Phoenix Bleg?

I'm writing a short piece on "The Phoenix and the Turtle" for Madhavi Menon's collection Shakesqueer. As a draft is due in February, I thought now would be a good time to start. Here's my abstract:
"Number there in love was slain."

"The Phoenix and the Turtle" presents two lovers in whose intensity "neither two nor one was called." In and against its confusion at this wonder, Reason offers up a funeral oration, its "threnos," to close up its subjects in proper being. I identify the "treble-dated" crow as the other chief agent of funerality: it is the figure of an already known past, present, and foreclosed future, a figure of life as inexorable motion towards death ("with the breath thou giv'st and tak'st"); clothed in "sable," it is the chief mourner and hence chief enthusiast for a ritual that accepts and promotes death "as that which gives 'meaning' to life, or is the precondition for the 'true' life of man" (Marcuse, "Ideology of Death"). I argue that the mourners and the poem itself are looking in the wrong place. The Phoenix and Turtledove are not, as Reason declaims, "here cinders"; they are not in the urn over which Reason urges all those "true or fair" to pray. The lovers have "fled / in a mutual flame from hence." By "reject[ing] personhood, a status that the law needs in order to discipline us" (Bersani, Homos), they have slipped from the poem's sad progress. I want to imagine (not identify) the unnamed "bird of loudest lay" of the opening line as an amalgam of Phoenix and Turtledove, who, by slaying number, can sing at their own funeral, unknowable but perhaps not unheard for a procession that wants Reason to have the last word.

As it stands, I'm afraid I've proposed a sort of a boilerplate queer reading, although (I'm almost certain) that it's at least a new interpretation. Since I'm hardly a master of queer theory, or anything, I'm asking for some bibliographic assistance. As you see, I've read the Bersani (both Homos and Forms of Being), but I've yet to read Edelman. Following Michael O'Rourke's suggestion, I read the GLQ "Queer Temporalities" issue. My task might be as simple, and difficult, as reading everything Eileen points to in her Notes Toward an Enamored Medieval Studies, but certainly there's something I'm missing, either on qt or deathism or something else.

Thanks in advance.

More on assimilating fossils and temporality

While we're on the topic of fossils, alternate worlds, and temporality ... I thought I'd share a link to this very good site focused upon Stoney Littleton, a Neolithic chambered tomb in Somerset. The entrance to the long barrow prominently displays a fossilized ammonite, while the interior is constructed of rocks replete with mineralized organisms.

What the structure's builders thought of this writing on the stones we can't know with the same certainty that surrounds a reading of Augustine on Utica beach, but we can guess (I suppose) that they found these objects to be beautiful, maybe sacred, certainly a kind of art similar to what they were attempting to accomplish in erecting such an unnecessary architecture.

Like most Neolithic sites that look like something other than an ambiguous rise of land or a flattened depression in humdrum terrain, this one owes a great deal to modern reconstruction. Its new life as a New Age pilgrimage site attests to the pull these places exert -- and to the enfolded temporalities at which they dwell.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

OE job at UC Berkeley

Knowing that many of ITM's readers are young in the field, Maura Nolan has asked me to post the following.

UC Berkeley is conducting an open-rank search for a specialist in Old English language and literature. The job was not coming up via "medieval" keyword searches in the MLA job list, the primary way most graduate students and early career medievalists would discover it. The problem has been solved, however, and the information is now available there.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Augustine, a giant's tooth, and particles of alterity

I want to explain a certain cryptic turn of phrase I used in a comment to this post, and give those words some better context. Much of this material gets at the heart of a project of long gestation, bits and pieces of which have ended up on this blog over the past year. First, the comment:
Though I was dealing with the history of pictures, the bigger question is one better addressed to texts: could it happen in the middle ages that a knowledge of the bible's "particles of alterity" (I don't know a better way of phrasing it -- I mean, things like creation via sea monster, or nonanthropocentric creation more generally, or an intimation that there are multiple ways and incompatible ways of narrating prehistory) -- is there a way that these challenges to a monolithic and unperturbed reading of the deep past can surface and be known, or are they destined to be folded back into the dominating story?
Now, some context.

I've been working on a nexus of questions that I've used the shorthand The Weight of the Past to describe. Now I'm trying to pull much of this material together for the Holloway Lecture at McDaniel College in November -- in fact, "The Weight of the Past: Dreaming the Prehistoric in the Middle Ages" is the title of my talk. Here's my short version of that lecture:
The medieval landscape included, just as it does today, intrusions of the ancient past: fossils of prehistoric animals and structures like Stonehenge. This lecture explores the stories medieval people dreamed to give meaning to these strange remnants of a prehistoric world. It will raise and attempt to answer a series of related questions: How did medieval people understand the inhuman gap of time that separated them from fossils, megaliths, and the origins of their worlds? Can the past communicate in a language of its own? Or can the past be heard only in the the listener's language, so that we can never know what structures like Stonehenge or stories like tales of Merlin meant to their authors? How do we treat time capsules like Stonehenge, Avebury, or bodies recovered in bogs? As quarries for ordinary uses? As museum exhibits? What is sacred about the past, or does reverence impede an understanding history? Is a body buried with artifacts a message to the future, a letter to an uncertain receiver, or a gift sent to lost gods never to be opened by human hands? What of a text describing a vanished life? Can the past speak to us, like a living thing, or does it require a mediator, a necromancer? Must the past end like the wizard Merlin does: entombed forever in silent stone, the victim of his own inability to understand the world? Or is there a way for the past to retain a life in death that is more than a revenant's graveyard existence?
The long version of the lecture, yet to be written, is my current obsession.

Lately I've been thinking about Augustine wandering the beach at Utica and discovering a giant's tooth. The bishop of Hippo narrates the encounter as a fifth century version of "Dover Beach," one in which the sea of faith is brimming while the pagan past ebbs ... or ossifies:
And if in the more recent times [human bodies were larger than they are today], how much more in the ages before the world-renowned deluge? But the large size of the primitive human body is often proved to the incredulous by the exposure of sepulchres, either through the wear of time or the violence of torrents or some accident, and in which bones of incredible size have been found or have rolled out. I myself, along with some others, saw on the shore at Utica a man's molar tooth of such a size, that if it were cut down into teeth such as we have, a hundred, I fancy, could have been made out of it. But that, I believe, belonged to some giant. For though the bodies of ordinary men were then larger than ours, the giants surpassed all in stature. (City of God 15.9)
Augustine knew from Vergil, Homer and Pliny that fossilized bones had been found throughout history. Like these classical writers he understood these mineralized remnants of once living bodies to be human remains, irrefutable evidence that people had once been much larger in size. He therefore speaks of graves unearthed by inhuman forces, revealing messages sent from a distant past to an incredulous present. In these passages, he seems to be meditating as much upon the translation of authority from pagan authors to scripture as he is upon bodies and bones.

Whereas we will likely discern in that giant’s tooth at Utica beach the leavings of a mammoth or a marine dinosaur, Augustine used the history available to him to interpret the bone as having originated in a body that predated Noah’s flood, an antediluvian postcard that announced that contemporary humans were diminished and weakened things, dwellers at the world’s twilight and not its Edenic morning. Augustine at the edge of the sea examines a fossil tooth and memorializes the passing of time: the age of the patriarchs has ended, the age of the Greeks and Romans is fading, the ocean that once “round earth's shore / Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd” now gives off a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, / Retreating.”

My question is: could Augustine have seen the tooth in any other way? Could it -- like the bible itself, with its sedimentation of multiple authors and multiple stories and alternative realities -- have somehow broken through a monolithic conception of the world as it was, as it ever had to be, and offered some other narrative, some other possibility? Or was it impossible for the tooth to offer anything to Augustine other than the confirmation of his own system of thinking?

I'm no expert on Augustinian theology, but it seems to me that the most likely and direct answer is that Augustine's system is fairly impermeable. and the tooth could no more be realized as a message from deep time as could a knowledge that the divinities YHWH and El might have fused to form a single god. Augustine conceived of time as something we humans live within and are entrapped by. (Merlin's entombment is horrific because for a while he lives outside of time, but time passes around him all the same.) God, on the other hand, is wholly outside of the temporal. Only humans perceive the progress of the ages, illusory as that movement is: it is our fate as fallen and mortal creatures to order into sequences that which for god is not a historical chain.

That must mean that for Augustine any notion of prehistory must stop at Eden; really, the antediluvian world is as close as he can get to "deep time." No object can contain a story that isn't collapsible into that shallow past. The same therefore with ancient architectures -- stone circles, dolmens: they cannot tell a story other than the theologically brief one Augustine sets out. The genre of romance must be invented before we can have true alternate worlds.


[my sincere thanks to Jehangir Malegam, who allowed me to hijack lunch conversation last week and talk some serious Augustine]

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Inhuman history and POV

In Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World, Martin J. S. Rudwick traces how Victorian illustrations of the prehuman world (especially those crammed with strange life forms like dinosaurs) were deeply influenced by depictions of biblical history, and especially by scenes of the seven days of creation. Rudwick writes:
It is easy to take these scenes from ‘deep time’ for granted. But they invoke a conceptual and material construction of a very peculiar kind. Their realistic style invites us to imagine that we are seeing the deep past with our own eyes, unproblematically, as if from a time machine. Yet we also know that in fact they are based on extremely fragmentary evidence, fleshed out with a complex network of theoretical inferences. Furthermore, a moment’s reflection shows that they are very far from any simple realism, not least because they crowd into one scene a variety of organisms that would unlikely to pose together so obligingly in real life

Rudwick is as interested in point of view as mis en scene: these snapshots of prehistory are always organized as if an invisible human being were the observer. The vanished but assumed human knower is omnipresent, even in dinosaur illustrations to this day, leaving invisible what is in fact a problem:
Scenes from deep time … had not been and could not be witnessed by any human beings at all. By definition they claimed to represent a human viewpoint in a world that was totally nonhuman because it was prehuman. Here, significantly, the only precedent that might have been helpful was one with which many ‘men of science’ were reluctant to be associated. Traditional biblical illustrations had always included scenes from the very beginning of time, before any human beings were present to record events depicted … However, that pre-Adamic human viewpoint was not a divine viewpoint, unless it was that of the anthropomorphic Yahweh ‘walking in the garden in the cool of the day,’ or, proleptically, that of the logos that ‘was made flesh and dwelt among us.'

The organizing principle of the picture, that which gives it meaning and coherence, saturates the visual field with human meaning. Inhuman history is made knowable by making it anthropocentric -- even in the supposed absence of the human.

I was thinking about Rudwick's book this morning while reading a review in the Washington Post of the new Ansel Adams exhibit at the Corcoran. Blake Gopnik writes about the POV in Adams' iconic nature photography and what vanishes from them. Gopnik is specifically interested in the various cars Adams used to transport himself to vistas that seem to lack human content:

Of course, none of those cars are visible in Adams's photos. (Or not in most of them, at any rate. More on that below.) But they are a hidden presence that helps give his photos force and builds their meaning. Adams and his images are a product of the glory days of Machine Age America, and they speak about it.

Adams's photos aren't just about landscape. They're about the particular confrontation between technology and landscape that made those photos possible. The images of the Sierra Nevada are as much about getting easy access to those mountains -- even with dozens of pounds of large-format camera equipment -- as about the mountains themselves. America's love affair with its landscape has never been only about the natural wonders it contains. It's been about pride in America's ownership of those wonders and the ability to go out from settled centers to take them in. Technology made it ever easier to make the trek; photographic technology made it possible to seize the instant of encounter and commemorate that ownership.

Gopnik even provides a commercial photograph that Adams created and which was discovered in a drawer at the Post:
Just by chance, The Washington Post also owns a bunch of Adams advertising shots, discovered in a drawer more than 10 years ago. There's not much of a clue to where they came from, but they feature trademark Adams subjects: the giant trees of northern California, the cliffs and peaks of Yosemite. Yet, in each shot, cars and roads bring people into the scene, so they can have fun and look sexy and, generally speaking, sell the tourist landscape all around them. One of them is a classically Adamsian shot of a famously huge tree -- with a shiny eight-door custom Cadillac parked at its base, disgorging happy city folk. In his commercial work, Adams depicted America's mechanized reality. His art displays its alter ego.

Though the website doesn't offer this image, it is quite intriguing: an absolutely immense Redwood with an absolutely immense Cadillac, Ansel Adams with the human that has always been his frame made suddenly and stunningly visible.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

“Free and Open at Eyther Ende,” or Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

(Image from here: Strange but Trewe)

I stumbled across an interpretation Tuesday in the course of teaching the Prioress's Tale. As I said it, it sounded familiar to me, but I've gone through my notes with some fine teeth (mine) and haven't been able to turn up anyone else who's said it. So bear with me, read along, and if what I'm saying sounds familiar, please let me know.

It's well-known that the ritual murder charge is often also one of anthropophagy. The late twelfth-century, and, it should be said, highly ironic chronicler Richard of Devizes records or invents a charge at Winchester in which an immigrant laborer disappears on Good Friday. His friend accuses a Jew of the crime with “isti unicum sodalem meum iugulavit, presumo etiam quod manducavit” (this man has cut the throat of my only friend, and I presume he has eaten him, too!). The chronicle of the monastery of Saint Peter of Gloucester writes that when Harold of Gloucester was murdered, he was (and here I quote at length because I can't readily turn up any translations: so my quick and very dirty translation of this little bit might help scholars looking for a crib, or it might help you help me with that word "acellis," since neither my Lewis and Short nor the online Du Cange want to cooperate: update thank you Nicola Masciandaro):
Nam tandam visum est medium duobus ignibus interpositum miserabiliter latera, tergum, nates, cum genibus, manibus, pedum quoque plantas torruerunt, defixas circa capitis ambitum spinas, et sub utrisque acellis, ardente quoque adipe veluti assatura carnis fieri solet guttatim in tota corporis superficie distillata..." (20-21)

For at last it was seen that he was been placed between two fires, and his flanks, back, buttocks, with his knees, hands, and the heels of his feet wretchedly roasted, and he had thorns wrapped around his head, and under each ACELLIS armpit, and just as if he had become roasted meat, blazing fat had been dripped drop-by-drop all over the surface of his body...
There's also the narrative of the murder of Adam of Bristol, whose full and jaw-droppingly bizarre details I won't go into here, just yet. In it, Samuel, the paternal head of a murderous Jewish family, refers to his victim, Adam, as “porcellum meum” (my little pig [which is strange: check my * below]). Samuel threatens to roast Adam by the fire rotisserie-style like a plump chicken (as Samuel says, "ego regirabo," and adds “assabitur corpus dei christianorum, iuxta ignem sicut gallina crassa”). Prior to the roasting, Samuel's wife cuts off Adam's nose and lips, using the knife customarily used to cut her bread (“cultello quo solebat incidere panem”). Moreover, the family plans the torments over a feast, so as the murderous family eats, it plans the disposal of the body that will be treated like edible flesh, that is, eventually deposited in a latrine and pissed on by Samuel.

It's usual for the corpse in a ritual murder story to end up in such a place. This is what happens in the Prioress's tale, where the Jews "in a wardrobe ... hym threwe / Where as thise jewes purgen hire entraille,” although, strictly speaking, the Prioress's Tale is not a ritual murder: however much Satan swelled up and reminded the Jews that their law was being scorned, the murder seems to be occasioned by irritation rather than by ritual necessity. And there's no anthropophagy (at this point, imagine an ominous foreshadowing noise here, perhaps with this famous moving image swelling up in your sight).

All of this is a kind of hors d’œuvre for what I promised in my first paragraph, namely, an interpretation of the shape of the Ghetto in the Prioress's tale (see another aside below). Because the ghetto is “free and open at eyther ende,” the little clergeon can make his way through it, singing his Alma redemptoris the whole way until he meets his end. But, as I observed in my (8am!) class on Tuesday, he also meets the Jews' end, because, after all, what else is open at both ends and ends in a latrine?

(if you need a hint, look at the photo above)

I'm sure it's been said before that the Ghetto in the Prioress's Tale functions as a kind of corpus Judaeorum. What does that get us in terms of interpretation? I'm not entirely sure yet. I'll share with you what I told my students, but I don't want to take this any further until I know I'm not just filling someone's else's footprints, compelled unwittingly to follow by the memory of their passage through the critical swamp (and I'll end the metaphor here). We have witnessed anthropophagy, albeit in a disguised form, and indeed we'll witness it (disguised) again, when the boy's body processes through the town to the church in a kind of Corpus Christi parade, and when the Abbot takes the greyn, which, whatever it might be, necessarily recalls the Eucharist. We might, then, if we wanted to push at this reading, see the tale as referencing debates and exempla about the indomitable purity of the Eucharist even when it's threatened with transformation into feces by the ritual of the Eucharist itself. But that's perhaps rather too much. It's much simpler to see the main street of the Jewerye (or Juerie) as an alimentary canal, and the Jewerye as the body of the Jews. As I said to my students, this approach heightens the logic of revenge: a Christian body that functions as the corpus Christianorum has been destroyed, so there's a Jewish body destroyed in turn. The collective punishment is also the punishment of a single urban body. So, where to take this?

* Strange because there's such an emphasis (dare I say slapstick emphasis) placed on Jewish food codes later in the story, after Samuel has murdered his family (who had the gall to apostatize) and fled to his sister's house, both out of guilt and out of fear of the inconvenient angel standing guard over Adam's body, that is, in the latrine. When several credulous Irish priests show up in Bristol, Samuel and his sister offer them lodgings, hoping to trick them into getting the boy's holy corpse out of the latrine away from the angel. Here's the conversation once Samuel's sister offers the priests some food. Pardon my stilted translation:
“Quales carnes vultis habere ad edendum?” Cui sacerdos: “O domina, carnes porcinas.” Et illa: “Carnes porcine non sunt bone nec sane in hac urba, quia plene sunt lepra et commedunt stercora hominum in plateis. Set dabo vobis carnes bovinas, et .3es. gallinas crassas vobis et nobis.”

“What sort of meat do you wish to have to eat?” The priest replied, “O mistress, pork.” She said, “Pork isn't good or healthy in this town, since it is measly/leprous and they [the pigs] eat human excrement in the street. But I will give you beef and three fat chickens for you and your retinue.”

Another Aside: I should say Jewish Ghetto: remember that this story does not take place in a Christian city. One might just as well presume that this unnamed Asian city had a Christian ghetto too, one surrounding the Jewish quarter, but ultimately, one that was itself a quarter: could we take the several prepositions that open the tale this way? "There was in Asye (i.e., not in Europe), in a greet citee (i.e., not in the country or in a little city) / amonges Cristene folk (i.e., a subset of the city, just as the city is a subset of Asia) / a Jewerye" (a subset of the Christian quarter). Perhaps this helps explain why the Jews suffer something that recalls (to me, anyway) the punishment for treason (drawing and hanging). The "lord of that contree" sustains the Jews "for foule usure and lucre of vileynye," but as this is not a Christian city, one wonders for what purposes the lord sustains the Christians? And I wonder, then, if the Jewish crime isn't so much murder as it is an attack on the lord's own person, just as an attack on the Jews in many Western European places could also be an attack on people who "belonged" to the king. This is just a suggestion, and one, I should say, inspired by Joseph Kugelmass's excellent reading (not a Chaucerian deferral of responsibility, but an acknowledgment).

PS. What's the space between ABD and PhD called? Because that's where I am. Defended last Thursday, did the revisions yesterday, and now just need to run the bureaucratic gauntlet. CU confers its degrees only a few magical times during the year, so even if I were to turn this thing in today, I wouldn't have my degree until the middle of October. I cannot help but float now through a liminal space, annoyingly in the middle.

l'shana tova

Here's wishing a happy new year to all readers of In the Middle.

AAUP statement on freedom in the classroom

Readers who don't belong to the American Association of University Professors may not be aware that this professional organization that watches over issues affecting university life has recently published an important statement on pedagogy and classroom freedom.

I reproduce Cary Nelson's email below, with links to the statement itself and to Michael Berubé's endorsement.

The intellectual independence and integrity of higher education’s classroom faculty have been under attack for some time—by the press, by conservative commentators, and by politicians. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is convinced that it is time take back the classroom on behalf of academic freedom. In a clear and carefully reasoned historic new report, we counter these attacks and lay out the principles of responsible college pedagogy. The full report, Freedom in the Classroom, is available in the September–October issue of Academe , our journal of record, and online.

The report differentiates instruction from indoctrination. It addresses demands for “balance” in the classroom and offers a very specific and limited disciplinary rationale for the relevance of balance. It argues forcefully that college instructors have the right—and, some would argue, the responsibility—to challenge their students’ most cherished beliefs.

The report also takes up the most controversial issue, politics in the classroom, and offers an analysis for your consideration. We adapt an example from a 2007 New York Times column: “Might not a teacher of nineteenth-century American literature, taking up Moby Dick , a subject having nothing to do with the presidency, ask the class to consider whether any parallel between President George W. Bush and Captain Ahab could be pursued for insight into Melville’s novel? Might not an instructor of classical philosophy, teaching Aristotle’s views of moral virtue, present President Bill Clinton’s conduct as a case study for student discussion?”

No matter what the discipline, no matter what subject matter or historical period a course description defines, we suggest, the field of contemporary culture and politics is available for comparison, analogy, and contrast. To say this is to reaffirm the life of the mind, to assert that in human culture anything may potentially be connected to anything else.

This e-mail is being sent to more than 350,000 faculty and academic professionals in the United States and to tens of thousands in other countries. Not all faculty and academic professionals have the sort of academic freedom we value, but they all need to hear these principles articulated and affirmed. We encourage you to read the full report, discuss it with your students and colleagues, send us your comments, and join our efforts to disseminate this message.

See Michael Bérubé’s essay "Why the AAUP’s New Statement ‘Freedom in the Classroom’ Matters" online in the September 11 issue of Inside Higher Ed.

Cary Nelson
AAUP President

EDIT: These words from Berubé's essay were especially resonant, touching as they do the kinds of conversations we have here at ITM and which many of us attempt in our classes as well:
Class discussion can go in any direction whatsoever. Students can pick up on a professor’s analogy ... and run with it anywhere they like; every day, they bring to the classroom their own analogies, obsessions, fully-formed arguments, and passing concerns, as well as the ideas that just popped into their heads a few minutes ago. And in response, professors can pick up on students’ responses and take them wherever on the syllabus — or wherever in the world — seems most pedagogically promising.

This is so common and ordinary a feature of college classrooms that it should need no defense. Quite literally, it should go without saying that college classrooms are places where students and professors can pursue illuminating analogies, develop trains of thought, play devil’s advocate, and make connections between past and present.

I'll also add that the whole issue is a sobering reminder of the difference between teaching at a state-funded university in which legislators or a board of visitors or some such feel it is their moral duty to scrutinize individual classrooms and root out perceived evils; and a big, private university that doesn't have an intrusive board of trustees (a mixture of benign neglect and faith in faculty here at GW). Lynn Cheney, ACTA, and their shrill Vanishing Shakespeare! [exclamation point added to better convey the actual tone of the report] would like to change that, turning alumni into front-line activists against evident decadence and decline ... but so far as I can tell such epic tempests (<-- note Bard reference) have been confined to very small tea cups.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What Is The Meaning of All These Sacrifices?: The Homeric Dream

Southern Illinois University, where I teach [Edwardsville campus, just outside St. Louis], recently launched, through our Provost's office, the New Freshman Seminar program, which is designed around required [for all incoming students] first-year cross-disciplinary & team-taught courses, of between 100 to 200 students, that are also "linked" to so-called "skills" courses, such as ENG101. My colleague Michael Moore [Carolingian history scholar] and I thought: what a wonderful opportunity to get over a hundred students in the classroom and read Homer and maybe even see how relevant Homer is to understanding certain notions of Western culture, history, and identity. So, next fall, we will be teaching a New Freshman Seminar titled "The Homeric Dream," which I share with everyone here [Michael gets most of the credit for writing the description]:

HIST111A Introduction to the History of Western Civilization: The Homeric Dream

This course is an exploration of the importance of the works of Homer—especially the Odyssey (although portions of the Iliad will also be included)—in the development of Western history and culture and what might even be called a collective Western unconscious. Homer’s poetry can be viewed as a great storehouse of themes, characters, and artistic styles that have had a tremendous influence over the course of later poetry, drama, fiction, historiography, and philosophy in the European and American cultural traditions. We will trace the challenges that the Homeric legacy has posed to artists, historians, and philosophers alike, and use an examination of this theme as a passageway into the interior core of the Western tradition. The Homeric legacy appears throughout the texture of Western culture, like the veins in marble, and our ultimate objective will be to delineate the traces of these veins in order to better understand the formation, over a long period of time (antiquity to modernity), of Western identity, society, and culture.

Homeric literature has been the source of endless repetitions, imitations, innovations and reinterpretations of particular themes and characters. The “Homeric Dream” of our title refers to the promise of Homeric literature: that the meaning of the pain and tragedy of human existence, as well as the greatest beauties and longings of humanity, can be experienced and encompassed in the realm of epic art. Thus Hegel’s great question about the nature and meaning of history--“what is the meaning of all these sacrifices?”--was answered in the Homeric tradition, with the promise of the transformative power of art. Dramatists such as Euripides and Aeschylus discovered that the realm of tragedy and violent, terrible events could become the source of supreme beauty (the sublime) as well as a spur to the deep transformation of the individual and society. It will be one of our chief objectives to interrogate together with our students whether or not this might still be the case, and further, whether or not art is sufficient to the question, “what does it mean to be human?”

The course will focus on readings that demonstrate the influence of Homer and Homeric themes across the centuries and in different cultural registers. Among the works to be studied: Homer’s Odyssey (and portions of the Iliad); Vergil’s Aeneid; the Oresteia Cycle of Aeschylus; the recent collection Averno by American poet Louise Gluck; the play Philoctetes by contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney; selected poems of Tennyson; and Derek Walcott’s book-length poem Omeros, which is set in the Caribbean. In order to interrogate the persistence of “the Homeric” in contemporary culture, we will also view together Ulysses’ Gaze (Theo Angelopoulos’s 1995 film set in the war-torn Balkan provinces), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (the Coen Brothers’ 2000 comic homage to the Odyssey set in the deep South of Depression Era America), and Garden State (Zach Braff’s 2004 film which updates portions of the Odyssey to one young man’s troubled homecoming from Los Angeles to New Jersey and his psychological journey from mental illness to well-being). To enhance the students’ appreciation for the different cultural venues within which “the Homeric” appears and reappears, we will also listen to portions of Henry Purcell’s 17th-century opera Dido and Aeneas and we hope to include a live performance of a Greek drama as well. There will also be some selected readings culled from the disciplines of history, philosophy, and psychology. Finally, to provide a “live action” and creative component to the course, that will also be designed to help students create community with each other and to navigate the university and its environs, there will be a creative video project, in which students will be put into groups to shoot short “Odyssey” films.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Uses of the Past: The Hedgehog Review and Beyond

Figure 1. Staircase at La Sagrada Familia, a basilica in Barcelona, Spain, perpetually unfinished, begun by Antoni Gaudi in the 1880s

As regular readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of The Hedgehog Review, a journal published by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. The Institute states its mission this way:
The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture is an interdisciplinary research center and intellectual community at the University of Virginia committed to understanding contemporary cultural change and its wide-ranging individual and social consequences.

The changes we witness today are as complex as they are extensive and, in many respects, they are unprecedented in human history. In studying these developments, our particular focus is on the changing frameworks of meaning and moral order—the symbolic and structural frameworks within which individual life, institutional adaptation, and political conflict in the contemporary world take place. Our attention, then, is directed not to the passing trends or the artifacts of change but rather to what we call the “deep structures” of contemporary culture, to the way transformations at this largely tacit and constitutive level take concrete institutional form in the organization of public life, in the moral coordinates of people’s personal lives, and in the sources of meaning that define human flourishing.

Although I love The Hedgehog Review and admire the Institute's commitment to investigating the "deep structures" of contemporary culture, issues of the Review, which have centered on everything from "Religion and Violence," "The Body and Being Human," "Illness and Suffering," "Technology and the Human Person," "Celebrity Culture," "Meditations on Exile and Home," "Identity," "What Is The University For?" and "The Fate of the Arts," only ever include the voices of scholars [who are always well-known and admired in their respective fields: each issue presents a "cluster" of already well-established scholars speaking to a particular theme] who work on either 20th-century or "contemporary" subjects; therefore, the "deep structures" being analyzed are being analyzed without the benefit of the perspective of scholars working in premodern studies [which I define as antiquity through the so-called "early modern" periods]. This would not be such a terrible thing, given the fact that each issue always contains a "bibliographic essay," which purports to provide, by sub-headings, the authors and titles of any work deemed essential reading on that issue's particular topic. Rarely, if ever, does work by premodern scholars ever make these lists--so, for example, in their issue devoted to "The Body and Being Human," neither Caroline Walker Bynum, Peter Brown, Thomas Laqueur, Sarah Coakley, or even Roy Porter were included [and yes, I know there are many more scholars I could mention here]. Imagine my surprise when my new issue arrived in the mail yesterday, devoted to "The Uses of the Past," and the entire table of contents revealed quickly that what would be at stake in the essays would be issues of memory and counter-memory, repression and trauma, memorials, nostalgia, and the "trouble" of "troubling" pasts," but only in relation to historical events of the 20th century [or events that are seen as importantly antecedent to this century by not more than 200-300 years].

I don't want anyone to think I am complaining here, as I have never been disappointed by the essays I read in The Hedgehog Review--oftentimes, they are positively thrilling to read, and some issues have inspired new directions in my own work. I mention this because I think the Institute at Virginia has absolutely the right notions about the study of contemporary culture and their mission statement provides an opening, I think, for yet another journal that might be dreamed up and put into play alongside journals like The Hedgehog Review as a kind of long-missing and much-needed supplement. Imagine a journal run and managed entirely by scholars working in, say, medieval studies, that would structure each issue around a "presentist" or contemporary issue or troubling present question, such as [to cadge from Hedgehog] "Religion and Violence" or [to pose our own issues and questions], "What Is The Place of the Past in the Present?" and "What Are the Proper Uses of Historical Memory?" and "How Does Deep Time Return?" and "What Is Going Abroad?" "What Is Justice?" and "What Was/Is the Human Person?" and "How Should We Count Time?" and "Who Is the Foreigner?" and "Who Is the Child?" and "What Is Terrorism?" and "What is Nostalgia?" and "What Is Globalization?" and "How Many Sexes?" and "What and Where is the Modern?" and "Where Is Utopia?" and "Is There a Third Culture Yet?" etc. etc. I could go on and on. This would be a journal that would have two faces or orientations: one looking to the future, the other into deep time, and always seeking to make present the often invisible structures of the past in the present, but with the desire to effect change in the dispositions and habits of its readers as regards their present-day "worldliness" [to cadge from Edward Said]. This would be a journal that would [hopefully] demonstrate the worth and value of premodern studies to pressing present-day concerns and anxieties and world "troubles," and the scholars involved in its publication would be willing to step outside certain old ways of doing scholarship in order to make occasionally obscene and always new connections between histories, ideas, cultural artifacts, discourses, and texts [literary and otherwise] that have traditionally been perceived to be disparate from and incommensurable with each other. This would be scholarship that would be erudite and learned and serious and rigorous [in all the ways that medieval scholarship has traditionally been], while also being playful and sensuous and artistic [but without ever forgetting that something that matters is always at stake]. Such a journal is possible, and I am working on it, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, I do want to encourage everyone to somehow get their hands on the most recent issue of The Hedgehog Review, "The Uses of the Past" [vol. 9, no. 2; Summer 2007]: you can see the Table of Contents here, and to whet your appetite, I will leave you with some excerpts from Svetlana Boym's "Nostalgia and Its Discontents," an essay that [I think] is very thought-provoking for medievalists in general and which is also apropos to many of the conversations we have here often:
The twentieth century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia. Optimistic belief in the future became outmoded, while nostalgia, for better or worse, never went out of fashion, remaining uncannily contemporary. . . . I would define it as a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one's own fantasy. Nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship. A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images--of home and abroad, of past and present, of dream and everyday life. The moment we try to force it into a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface.

. . . .

The nostalgia that interests me here is not merely an individual sickness but a symptom of our age, an historical emotion. Hence I will make three crucial points. First, nostalgia is not "antimodern"; it is not necessarily opposed to modernity but coeval with it. Nostalgia and progress are like Jekyll and Hyde: doubles and mirror images of one another. Nostalgia is not merely an expression of local longing, but a result of a new understanding of time and space that makes the division into the "local" and the "universal" possible.

Second, nostalgia appears to be a longing for place, but it is actually a yearning for a different time--the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to turn history into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. Hence the past of nostalgia, to paraphrase William Faulkner, is not even past. It could be merely better time, or slower time--time out of time, not encumbered by appointment books.

Third, nostalgia, in my view, is not always retrospective; it can be proscreptive as well. The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future. Unlike melancholia, which confines itself to the planes of individual consciousness, nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory. While futuristic utopias might be out of fashion, nostalgia itself has a utopian dimension--only it is no longer directed at the future. Sometimes it is not directed at the past either, but rather sideways. The nostalgic feels stifled within the conventional confines of time and space.
Boym goes on to formulate a typology of nostalgia that distinguishes between reflective and restorative nostalgia, and ultimately concludes with this beauty:
While restorative nostalgia returns and rebuilds one's homeland with paranoic determination, reflective nostalgia fears return with the same passion. Home, after all, is not a gated community. Paradise on earth might turn out to be another Potemkin village with no exit. The imperative of a contemporary nostalgic is to be homesick and sick of home--occasionally at the same time.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Chaucer and Writing in the Disciplines

A few years ago my university initiated a Writing in the Disciplines (WID) program to ensure that the attention to writing given in the first year of study continued thereafter. I'm naturally skeptical of all initiatives, especially when they come bearing acronyms, but I have to say that the WID program is very well thought out pedagogically. In fact, WID has changed how I teach.

A WID course emphasizes comprehension through writing and revision within discipline-appropriate modes. In a way most literature courses achieve these objectives already, but a true WID experience entails a consistent reliance upon writing as a mode of analysis, especially through frequent small exercises -- and not just the single big research paper which is the crowning jewel of traditional classes. WID courses move away from the examination model of evaluation completely, something that after years of grading near indecipherable handwriting I have found refreshing. (I tell my students that some day their kids will mock them for having had to compose anything in longhand; the in-class examination is one of the few spaces where this archaic practice still unfolds).

I'd always relied on the exam to ensure that comprehension of Middle English passages was what it should be in my Chaucer class. This semester I am finally teaching a transformed version of the course under the WID rubric. I still do a complete Canterbury Tales, but instead of two midterms and a quiz we have five writing assignments, all of which are completed back at the dorm to free up more class time (though we will talk about them in class to ensure that the students' labor is integrated into what we do in the classroom; I want these exercises to be central to our endeavors, not annoying little tasks completed in spare time).

Here are the five:
1. Take five lines of the General Prologue and rewrite as a faithful translation into Modern English, then into Modern English but with no poetic language (no figures of speech, nothing fancy, just a statement of bare meaning).

2. Translation of two quotations from the CT with an analytical paragraph on themes and context. Rubric:
(1) Briefly identify the passage by work, speaker, and context.
(2) Translate the passage into good Modern English.
(3) Paying close attention to the images, structure, and language of the passage, explain its significance to the themes of the tale in which it appears.
(4) Making specific reference to other tales, explain the significance of the passage to the themes of The Canterbury Tales as a whole.
Be ANALYTICAL: do not merely summarize plot.

3. Three passages of Middle English analyzed thematically
Rubric as above, but no translation.

4. Evaluation of a scholarly article.

5. Opening paragraph and one page prospectus for final paper.

We help studnets along the way through workshops and peer review, so this five assignment arc is a guided process through which my TA and I will get to know our student's strengths and weaknesses in writing and interpretation very well.

I'm also using, for the third time, the fairly new Chaucer: An Oxford Guide. I like this compendium because it helps us achieve one of our course objectives: understanding how various scholars analyze Chaucer, preferably so that we can disagree with them and mount persuasive interpretations of our own. To that end the big (15pp) research paper has this rubric:
The objectives of this paper are twofold: to acquaint you with the ways that contemporary medievalists interpret Chaucer, and to hone your own analytical skills while making a convincing argument for a reading of one of the Canterbury Tales.

Choose a tale that you have found especially rich and provocative. Reread the narrative carefully, making notes about the themes and problems of the text. Carefully read the relevant notes on your chosen tale at the back of the book (these notes are broken down by line number, so you will find yourself flipping back and forth between notes and text).

Now find two recent (published within the last seven to ten years) critical articles about your chosen tale, each of which offers a distinct interpretation. Good ways to unearth useful scholarly criticism include:
• the MLA International Bibliography (can be accessed via the Gelman web page, most easily via the "English and American Language Research Guide" [])
• Project Muse (a cluster of scholarly journals in electronic form, easily searchable:
• JSTOR (another such cluster, though these journals tend to be at least five years old:
• the essays in Chaucer: An Oxford Guide (ed. Ellis)
• the bibliographies and index in Chaucer: An Oxford Guide (ed. Ellis)

Not especially useful or reliable for a project such as this would be a Google search or most internet sites.

Your task in this paper is to analyze critically each scholarly article, demonstrating both its strengths and its weaknesses. Throughout this section of your essay you must keep Chaucer's text in mind, quoting from it to support your analysis of the two articles. You must then argue your own interpretation of the tale, making good use of the two essays but pushing their analysis farther – either to a place at which they meet or (even better) towards an interpretation neither anticipates but to which you, through reliance upon Chaucer's text, can confidently bring the line of argument.

You will be graded upon clarity and competence of writing; knowledge and critical use of your chosen Canterbury tale; depth of engagement with and understanding of the two scholarly articles; originality and persuasiveness of your interpretation.

I've framed the research project this way since last year, and students have actually enjoyed the assignment. This narrowed exercise has seemed so much more rewarding to them than the usual, vague "Go away and write me a good essay about a Canterbury Tale" approach.

We'll see how this all turns out, but I've been very pleased to have the chance to rethink how I teach the course -- my absolute favorite to teach.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

In Praise of Surfing and Epicureanism: Postcard from Seal Beach, California

Every now and then I like to give myself permission to do something that is decadently counterintuitive, so with mid-September deadlines looming for, respectively, an N.E.H. grant, two sets of page-proofs and an Index for a special journal issue and a volume of essays, paperwork for revisions to my department's B.A. program, a proposal to co-teach a new interdisciplinary course to about 200 first-year students next fall, titled "The Homeric Dream" [thank you, Michael Moore, for the idea], and a new book proposal for a volume of essays on BABEL's ongoing "humanisms" project, I decided to leave town with suitcase in tow [and no work] in order to celebrate my 45th birthday in Seal Beach, California with BABEL co-conspirator Betsy McCormick for an extended Labor Day weekend of surfing [well, I just watch Betsy and girl posse do that], eating, and drinking, with an outdoor blues festival featuring Little Richard as well as Justin Timberlake's HBO live Futuresex/Loveshow thrown in for good measure. Indeed, may I just note here that if anyone doubts that Justin Timberlake may represent the future of popular music in America, run don't walk to a viewing of this show which almost blew my mind and no I wasn't just drunk [the next viewing is this Thursday at 8:30 p.m. eastern time].

Epicurus once wrote that, "We have been born once and cannot be born a second time; for all eternity we shall no longer exist. But you, although you are not in control of tomorrow, are postponing your happiness. Life is wasted by delaying, and each one of us dies without enjoying leisure." Although some suspect that I am workaholic, even a frenzied and manic schemer of scholarly projects, I have always prided myself on the art of the lost weekend [which can be accomplished even when one is at home]. The best ideas, I have found, are best stumbled upon, not in the midst of the hectic hustle of the everyday, but when one is doing practically nothing at all, or nothing more strenuous than lying in a hammock or sitting in a porch chair staring at the clouds or reading something, not for pointed profit but for profligate pleasure. One must practice the art of stealing into movie theaters in the middle of a weekday or going on a bender with your favorite bartender on a Tuesday evening [which bartender, if you're really lucky, will reveal to you his "other" life] or going to the art museum on a Friday night when no one is there just to lay down on a couch next to the Mark Rothko, but be sure to leave before one of the security guards begins to wonder if you're homeless. Instead of getting up early on a Saturday and going to the gym, which would be good for you, after which you were planning to grade some papers and work on that book chapter that is half-finished, break out the boxed set of [insert your favorite filmmaker here] and watch the movies end to end with bottles of wine and cellphone in hand to order [pizza/Thai food/insert your favorite take-out here]. For me it's Woody Allen's Manhattan/Annie Hall/Hannah and Her Sisters/Everyone Says I Love You. Or Charlie Chaplan's Modern Times/City Lights/The Great Dictator. When it's Sunday and now you really should be more serious about the gym and grading those papers and attending to that half-finished chapter, sneak out of the house and go to the botanical gardens when the cherry trees and foxgloves are in bloom or when the leaves are turning or when everything is bare and you can see the secret architecture of the landscape. Watch the other people there with the same intensity that you contemplate the plants. Try to imagine their secret lives. Afterwards, go to your favorite restaurant and indulge yourself in a bottle of [Sancerre/Vouvray/Voigner/insert favorite French wine here--yes, it has to be French!] while flirting with your favorite waiter/waitress and reading Vanity Fair or Vogue or [insert your favorite silly glossy magazine here]. Go to the Zoo afterwards and spend some time with the penguins--no one is more "chill." Go home and watch DVD episodes of Will & Grace or Mary Tyler Moore or Newsradio or The Office or [insert anything here that will make you laugh]. Wake up in the morning seized with a sort if panic but knowing it [meaning: the "nothing" you accomplished] was all worth it.

Every now and then, go somewhere that is very different than anywhere you have ever lived, like, um . . . Seal Beach, California [where not much has changed since about, um, 1955]. Marvel at the crisp blue-iness and clean snap of the place and its sheer laziness. As you sit on Betsy's front porch [one block from the ocean] drinking beer after beer after beer after beer, note the surfers and skateboarders not walking but somehow gliding down the street and how quiet it is. Drink in the scent of the blooming jasmine vines and let your eyes be pierced by the hot pinks and oranges of the bougainvilleas. Go in search of the ultimate dinner, night after night, even if it means driving to Irvine to [gasp] the South Coast Plaza Mall because that is where the French chef Florent Marneau has decided to set up his restaurant Marché Moderne, where you will dine on a gentile ham, humboldt fog goat cheese, and asparagus oven tart, an artful charcuterie sampler [which includes duck prosciutto], and salads that cannot be described, except to say that you begin to believe in god again [or at least in boutique agriculture] and this after having spent the previous evening digging into this:

But unless you are a really good writer on food [and you are not], shut up about it and just eat. While slightly intoxicated, go shopping at H&M and Zara because Betsy told you it was stupid to shop anywhere else, and since you're already in the mall. Go to see the stupidest ["stupider than stupidest"] movie you can think of: Superbad. [Indeed, it is "superbad"; perhaps only men can love this movie, but to assuage the pain of the money lost at the box office, drink more beer and marvel at the stupidity of men--sorry guys]. Dance at the blues festival with Betsy's friend Mary who used to be a ballet dancer and realize that you really never knew anything about dancing your whole life, and this after at least ten or so "pink cadillac" magaritas. Hang out at Taco Surf with the girl surfers and drink pitchers of margaritas. Study sunsets and learn shortcuts through alleys that connect favorite bars on Main Street to Betsy's house by way of the "crazy lady" house with the twenty or so garden gnomes, each of which is lit under the glow of its own Tiffany-style lamp. In addition to the more elegant dinners, eat miniature burgers and pizza and sandwiches from Nick's and coffee cake from Sweet Jill's and chicken-on-a-stick and polish sausage dogs and fried artichokes. Stay up late talking and talking and talking [and occasionally arguing] but don't try to solve any world problems. Politics are off limits, as are wars and global warming. Somehow, without knowing how, you end up at the airport in Los Angeles writing this blog post and realizing that you and Betsy spent the price of two plane tickets to Belgium on three dinners, and that doesn't include the ridiculous amount of money you spent just on one belt. But it is a cool belt.

And remember, every now and then, how to "get lost." Now back to work. But first, that plane.